International Tiger Day

Happy International Tiger Day! International Tiger Day was founded five years ago to raise awareness of tigers, and their plight. I’ve already written about how amazing tigers are, so I won’t repeat myself. Instead, here are a few photos I’ve taken of tigers. I think they speak for themselves.

Bengal tiger100 years ago there were 100,000 tigers in the world. The current estimate is 3,000. They are threatened by poaching (for Chinese medicine and souvenirs for the rich), habitat destruction, conflict with local communities, and climate change. They need a large territory, as they require lots of food – they can eat 21kg of meat in a single night. Do have a look at the links below to see how you can help tigers.

Bengal tigerAlmost 10 years ago I was lucky enough to see tigers in the wild, in India’s Ranthambore National Park. One of the tigers I saw (pictured in the first photo in this post) was Machli, who was a rather famous tiger. I was delighted the other day to spot that the BBC had a repeat of their documentary about her and her cubs available on iPlayer. It’s available for the  so do check it out if you can access iPlayer.

In the meantime, I’m off to celebrate Internation Tiger Day with a bottle of my favourite big-cat branded lager.

Tiger eyes
Tiger eyes
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Hedgehogs in central London

While the numbers of many wild animal species have declined dramatically with increasing urbanisation, others have managed to adapt and survive, or even thrive, in these relatively new environments. Think of house mice, easily seen even in rush hour in underground tunnels. Or rats, feral pigeons and foxes. Suburban gardens seem to quite suit hedgehogs, as long as they can move between them, and the gardens aren’t too sterile in their perfection. But how do they get on in truly urban areas?

Not very well, so it seems. I heard a very interesting talk on hedgehogs in central London, by Nigel Reeve, at the Surrey Mammal Group meeting a couple of weeks ago. Central London is blessed with a number of large parks (including Hyde Park, Green Park, St James’ Park) and numerous smaller garden oases in squares dotted around the city. But only one of those green spaces, Regent’s Park, is known to be home to hedgehogs. Regent’s Park contains a mix of formal gardens, sports pitches, amenity grassland and wilder areas, covering 166 hectares in total.

The Royal Parks, supported by a generous anonymous donor, have been conducting indepth research into this isolated population, to see what can be learnt to help manage the park better for hedgehogs.

With the help of around 70 trained volunteers,  using a mix of spotlighting, footprint tunnels, camera traps, radiotracking and GPS tracking, they have now established that there are around 50 hedgehogs living in the park. This doesn’t seem too bad, at first glance. But it gives a hedgehog density much lower than that reported in other studies in the UK. And that population are completely cut off from any other hedgehogs – there’s no connectivity with parks and gardens further out of London, like Hampstead Heath, where there are hedgehogs. This makes the Regent’s Park population very vulnerable.

In an entirely unscientific comparison, to put it into perspective, Regent’s Park contains 50 hedgehogs in 166 hectares. My garden, which is 0.005 hectares (I know, I’m practically landed gentry!), was used by at least 6 different adult and 3 young hedgehogs in 2011.

The research team got a wealth of information from their study. The points that stood out for me were:

  • The hedgehogs they found were good weights (heavy for the time of year compared to hedgehogs found in other studies)
  • The hedgehogs were mostly found by the lake, formal gardens and zoo carpark
  • The radiotracking found that nests were mostly in the ‘informal shrubbery’, which includes areas of bramble and scrub
  • Half of hedgehogs used more than one nest in a single week
  • Short grass is a very important foraging habitat for them
  • Hedgehogs on average moved around 600-900m a night

Having got all this data, they have fed it back to the park staff, along with recommendations on how to encourage the fragile hedgehog population. They’ve also been doing work with the local community to raise awareness of hedgehogs, to try to protect this vulnerable population. Further research is happening this year.

You can read more about the study on the Royal Parks website.

June Photography Challenge: insects and a confession

I have a confession to make: I didn’t take any photos for my June photography challenge. I don’t know where the month went! Anyway, as the theme was insects, I thought this was a good reason to trawl through my archives, and see what I could do with the shots I already had. So, I may have failed to take new photos, but at least I’ve done something with some ones I’ve ignored up til now.

(dead) hornet
(dead) hornet
Ugandan butterfly
Ugandan butterfly
Bumblebee in artichoke flower
Bumblebee in artichoke flower

green insect insect on buttercup blue butterfly blue butterfly

Indian butterfly
Indian butterfly

dragonfly

Banded demoiselle damselfly
Banded demoiselle damselfly
hawker dragonfly
My tormentor – a hawker dragonfly of some kind?

Dormouse ecology (or how I got back into wildlife)

I’ve always loved wildlife, and being out in nature. But during my first few years of adult life, as a student living in big towns, I didn’t really act on that love. I’d go for country walks, and spend my holidays back in the beauty of Devon. I was always pleased to see exciting wildlife, like birds of prey, reptiles or even just bunny rabbits. But that was as far as it went.

Then, in 2006, newly married and living in the outskirts of London, it all changed. I had signed up to become a member of my local wildlife trust. One day their ‘what’s on’ brochure landed on my doormat, and, lured by a cute picture, I signed up for a one-day dormouse ecology course (the first of many courses I’ve done, and the beginning of a love affair with dormice).

Why do a dormouse ecology course

torpid dormouse
Torpid dormouse

My reasons for doing the course were pretty feeble – I knew practically nothing about dormice, apart from how cute they looked. I thought it would be an interesting way of spending a day off. That’s about it.

I was right. It was an interesting way to spend a day off. I did get to see lots of cute pictures of dormice. I even got a go at handling a couple. And I had my first experience of checking dormouse boxes.

One of the things that really struck me from the course (apart from how adorable dormice are) was that normal people, like me, could help with wildlife conservation. That there was still so much scientists don’t know about British animals, and that amateurs could help to fill those gaps. That was a bit of a revelation for me.

Dormice are fascinating creatures (as well as being undeniably sweet). They’re arboreal and nocturnal, so you’re not likely to bump into them, and they are rare in the UK. Add to that the fact that they spend several months a year hibernating – you could easily live within a few metres of a dormice and never see one.

There are other, more practical reasons for doing a dormouse ecology course, besides curiosity and liking cute pictures. Dormice are protected by law, meaning you need a licence to disturb them in any way. Doing a dormouse ecology course is an essential step towards getting your license, so is useful for professional ecologists and keen volunteers who want to contribute to dormouse monitoring.

Surrey Dormouse Group Ecology Course: 22 August 2015

Surrey Dormouse Group are running a dormouse ecology course on 22 August in Guildford. It’s a full day with classroom work in the morning, followed by a box check in the afternoon. There will be a charge for the day and you’ll need to bring lunch. It does not include dormouse handling, this is a separate course, but hopefully should include seeing dormice during the box check. You will receive a certificate of attendance at the end of the afternoon. There are only 20 places on the course, going fast, so if you would like to find out more, or would like a registration form, please email info@surreydormousegroup.org.uk for full details.

The course will be led by David Williams, a dormouse expert with years of practical experience, and the man who first introduced me to the delights of these beautiful animals.

The dormouse course I did, almost ten years ago, was the start of me getting serious about wildlife – realising how much there is to learn, and that I could get involved with studying and protecting it. Who knows, this year’s course may be the start (or another step towards) something special for you.

Urgent threat to the Hunting Act – act now!

Last week, while everyone was preoccupied with the Budget, the Tories announced (very quietly) that on Wednesday 15th July there would be a vote over an amendment to the Hunting Act of 2004.

Now, it’s not news that (some of) the Tories want to see an end to the Hunting Act 2004, which banned hunting with dogs. They had a manifesto commitment to a free vote on repealing the Act. What they’ve done now is rather different – it’s not a free vote on repealing the act, it’s trying to bring in a Statutory Instrument that would undermine the Act, and make it impossible to enforce.

The proposed amendments would allow an unlimited number of hounds to ‘flush out’ a fox, as long as the plan is then to shoot it. This amendment will, in effect, allow Hunts to return to hunting with hounds. As you can probably imagine, it will be very hard to get a clean shot at a fox when it is surrounded by a pack of hounds as well as the hunters and hunt supporters themselves. It would also be hard to stop the hounds killing the fox before it can be shot.

The proposed changes cherry pick some of the bits of current Scottish legislation, without the higher penalties that are available in Scotland. The Hunting Act of 2004 is a much more successful piece of animal welfare legislation, with 64% of prosecutions under it being successful. The Scottish legislation is much harder to enforce, with only 35% of prosecutions succeeding. The proposed changes would make it impossible to police.

So, why are they using the sneaky approach? It’s probably because they realise they will never have enough support from MPs to repeal the Act. The Act is one of the most popular bits of legislation going – 80% of the British public support it. Not all Tories would vote for it to be repealed. When I contacted my Conservative MP, in the run up to the election, about his views on the Hunting Act, he wrote back reassuring me that he would vote against any repeal of the Hunting Act.

By introducing the changes like this, instead of outright repeal, I think that they hope it will pass under the radar. There’s only 90 minutes allocated to debate the changes (the original legislation was debated for 700 hours). As it’s not downright repeal, maybe some MPs will be (willingly) fooled, or not think it’s important enough to turn up and vote against. And because the proposed changes are similar to the current legislation in Scotland, I think the hope is that SNP MPs will feel like they can’t vote against the changes.

So, what can we do? It’s vital that we use the few days we have to get in touch with our MPs and urge them to vote against the legislation. Petitions are all very well, but we need every MP to have been contacted by constituents, so they know that how they vote will be scrutinised. The Hunt lobby will also be mobilising, but, if we all act, there are enough of us to outweigh them. I’ve contacted my MP asking him to vote against the changes. I urge you to as well – by email, phone, Twitter, in person… If you don’t know how to get in touch with your MP, find out who it is on http://www.theyworkforyou.com – you can send them a message through that site, or use the power of a search engine to find out their contact details once you know their name. You could also use a search engine to look for details of your MP’s office, with surgery times and contact details. Or use this simple RSPCA tool to help you send an email to your MP.

My new barn owl project

I have a new project. Again. That’s probably not a huge surprise to those of you who know me, or have been following this blog for a while. (See the mini pond, the hedgehog box, the mammal footprint tunnel, the British Animal Challenge, the Photography Challenge, the pallet planter…) But this one is a bit different. It’s a cross stitch.

I love new projects – I love researching them and planning them in great detail. I love setting myself a goal, and working to reach it. I love watching it progress, and, eventually, seeing the finished result (although I have to admit I don’t always get this far – some of my projects are rather ambitious, and it’s the planning stage I love most).

I am an occasional cross stitcher. I like having something to do with my hands when listening to the radio or watching TV. It’s satisfying to see the design gradually emerge out of seeming chaos, stitch by stitch. And it’s methodical work that doesn’t require too much of my brain.

A recent trip to Hobbycraft got my fingers itching for a new craft project. Making clothes is banned until I finally finish hemming the curtains (dull, time consuming, awkward work, since I will insist on doing them by hand). But none of the cross stitch kits there really took my fancy. So I decided to give designing my own a go.

First I sorted through my favourite wildlife photos for a fairly simple one that would work well as a cross stitch, without lots of distracting background details. And one that I would be happy to have up in my home, when (if) finished. I settled on this barn owl photo.

Barn owlNext I found a website that turns your image into a cross stitch pattern. You specify the size you want, and the number of colours to use, and it comes up with a chart you can download and print. It took a few attempts to fin the right balance between something that looks good, and uses a sensible number of colours. The more colours you use, the more it looks like the photo, but the more complex it is to stitch. In the end I settled for 35, but that may be rather ambitious.

barn owl cross stitch pattern
Barn owl cross stitch pattern (the black lines just indicate where the page breaks are on the chart)

Next I had to source the aida and embroidery thread. I was pleased when this worked out to be less expensive than I feared, meaning the project will be cheaper than a kit, plus I will get all the leftover thread for future projects.

Then I created a thread organiser, labelled with the chart symbols to make it easy for me to find what I was looking for. Having sewn grid lines onto my fabric as a guide, I was ready to go.

I have been working on it slowly but surely, doing a bit most evenings when I am in. So far I’m still on the black background, and only about 6% in, but it’s good to see my gradual progress. If I ever finish it I will post a picture on the blog (if not you can safely assume it’s been stuffed in the chest of unfinished projects).

Work in progress: my barn owl cross stitch
Can you tell what it is yet?

My previous cross stitch projects have either been small scale, or unfinished (I get distracted by newer projects). But this is the first time I’ve stitched something of my own design. Who knows how it will go…

Too darn hot (or how to help wildlife in a heatwave)

Firstly, an apology for my non-UK readers: this is a post about the weather, specifically, me moaning because it's a temperature that for many of you is perfectly normal. I can't help it, I'm English.

It’s too darn hot. I commute to London four days a week. It’s really not been fun lately – our train isn’t air conditioned, and there seems to be no air at all coming in through the windows. Everyone is sweaty – clothes cling, and everybody politely ignores the visible damp patches on shirts, as we’re all in the same position. But I get off lightly – I don’t have to enter the depths of hell that is the underground network at this time of year, nor wedge myself into a mobile greenhouse (otherwise known as a bus).

And night is little better. Yesterday evening it was 27 degrees C when I wanted to go to bed. I’m not made for extremes of heat or cold – give me 21 degrees C and sunshine, and I’m happy. Anything too far either side of that and I’m miserable.

But I am very lucky – I can carry a bottle of water with me, and my food supply is as easily accessible as ever. Spare a thought  for our wildlife, who aren’t as lucky. Here’s some easy things you can do to help your wild neighbours during a heatwave:

  • Keep a bird bath topped up with clean water
  • Don’t forget about creatures who can’t fly – if you don’t have an accessible pond with shallow sloping sides, put out a dish of fresh water on the ground each day and night
  • If you don’t have a pond, why not create one – it’s one of the best things you can do to encourage wildlife in your garden. It needn’t be big – our mini pond gets used by lots of wildlife
  • Don’t forget to feed the birds and hedgehogs – it can be particularly hard for hedgehogs and blackbirds to find food when it’s been hot and dry for a long while, so leave out some cat food or mealworms for them
  • Water your garden plants when it’s cool (preferably with water from a water butt) to keep your garden a green oasis for wildlife
  • Build a log pile – this will provide damp shady places for insects, amphibians and mammals to keep cool during the day
  • Plant a tree or two in your garden to create some shade, if you don’t have some already (although a heatwave isn’t a great time to start planting trees – you might want to wait until the autumn / winter for this one)

You can find loads of useful wildlife gardening advice and practical instructions from the RSPB Make a Home for Wildlife site.

Do you have any other tips for helping wildlife through a heatwave?